Victoria mayor calls for audit on $105-million bridge project

Now that it’s all but finished, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is calling for an independent audit of the $105-million-plus Johnson Street Bridge project.

In a report to councillors, Helps is recommending council ask the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government to audit the project, which came in three years late and massively over budget.

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“They are doing phenomenal work — the AGLG — and I think Victoria should take advantage of that third party set of eyes on the project,” Helps said from San Francisco, where she was participating in an environmental conference.

The call for an audit was welcomed by mayoral candidate Stephen Hammond whose NewCouncil.ca slate had included an audit of the bridge as one of its campaign planks. “That’s fantastic. It’s what we’ve asked for. We put it in our media release the day that we launched a few weeks ago,” Hammond said. “It’s about time and I don’t even mind that it’s a coincidence that it’s five weeks before an election.”

Helps said the call for an audit might look like electioneering, but that she committed in February to the watchdog group Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria that she would ask council to endorse a call for an independent audit once the bridge project was finished.

Grumpy Taxpayer$ chairman Stan Bartlett confirmed that Helps had committed to the audit in February. “Certainly kudos are in order to Mayor Helps for bringing this forth,” Bartlett said.

“She voted against the original bridge contract years ago, but to her credit she’s brought this project to completion despite grief and challenges.”

Given the difference between the original budget and the final cost “there simply must be lessons learned that can be shared with other municipalities across the province,” Bartlett said.

Helps said she was aware the NewCouncil.ca slate had promised an audit of the bridge project if elected. “NewCouncil made the commitment very recently. I made the commitment back in February. My commitment was for when the bridge project was finished and it’s now finished so I’m following through on my commitment.”

Helps said she’s particularly interested in the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government looking at the procurement aspect of the project. “The fact that the bridge went out for tender at only 30 per cent design and we were told all this stuff about value engineering and optimization and stuff with only a four per cent contingency budget — I’m not an auditor but I know that that’s probably not a good thing,” Helps said.

“I felt [if a project] gets off the rails early on, it stays off the rails. If I were the AGLG, which I’m not, I would look into the early stages of this project and particularly the procurement period.”

The bridge, which opened on March 31, was originally scheduled to open Sept. 30, 2015. The project cost was estimated at $63 million in 2009 and grew to $92.8 million by the time the contract was awarded in 2012.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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